In midafternoon on May 5, a naval crew of Uruguayan peacekeepers carrying out a routine exercise on the Congolese side of Lake Kivu picked up a faint call on their radio from another vessel. Already that month, two ships ferrying passengers across the lake had sunk, but the men were too far from any stricken boat to see anything.
But they had another option: a drone.
The Uruguayans sent word to their base in Goma to direct a drone buzzing above them to inspect the signal’s origin. A surveillance team watching through the drone’s camera confirmed that a boat had capsized, and 15 minutes later, several speedboats were on the scene, soon joined by two helicopters. Rescuers pulled 14 survivors from the water, and hours later a helicopter crew saved one more.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where war has claimed millions of lives over the past two decades, it was a small act. For the U.N., however, it was validation of its nascent drone program, launched only months before in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
Eastern Congo is a testing ground of sorts, as the U.N. tries to streamline its global forces of nearly 100,000 deployed personnel who are grappling with increasingly intractable missions in over a dozen countries.
In November 2013, one year after Rwandan-backed M23 rebels dealt U.N. and Congolese soldiers a terrible blow by capturing Goma, the U.N.’s novel attack-minded Force Intervention Brigade retook the city and forced the remaining rebels to surrender. A month later, the first U.N. drone went airborne.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as the U.N. calls them to distinguish them from weaponized drones, have since been deployed consistently, even though their 125-mile range is a limitation in the DRC, which is the size of Western Europe.
“If you understand the geographic dimensions of this country and the difficulty to move around, you can understand why UAVs are very useful,” said Col. Félix Basse, a military spokesman with MONUSCO, the U.N. stabilization mission in the DRC. “With drones we can observe all armed groups’ movements and their activity, and we can track them down. All these things can be done without deploying troops.”
In Goma the U.N. leases five Falco UAVs from Selex, an Italian contractor. The UAVs, about 20 feet long, are capable of flying in darkness and can detect fires with infrared sensors. International crews and drone consultants, some of them American veterans, have moved to Goma to work as contractors.
The UAVs pinpoint illegal mining operations and weapon smugglers and been used along with Congolese forces to attempt to neutralize Ugandan ADF rebels and Mai Mai groups that have been terrorizing North Kivu. MONUSCO is also using them to track Hutu FDLR rebels.
‘With drones we can observe all armed groups’ movements and their activity, and we can track them down. All these things can be done without deploying troops.’
Col. Félix Basse
Peacekeepers have found that flying the drones unmuffled — so they can be heard better — deters militias and offers civilians a feeling of security from killing and rape.
Though the incident on Lake Kivu did not involve armed groups, it showed the speed with which drones can change the calculus when civilians are in danger.
“Our experience so far has confirmed that it is a flexible system,” said Edmond Mulet, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations. UAVs “would unquestionably be an asset in other theaters of operations.”
In Mali, Dutch peacekeepers are already using short-range hand-launched drones. Swedish troops are expected to do the same there later in the year, and Mali’s government has indicated its willingness to allow long-range UAVs.
When the U.N.’s mission in the Central African Republic begins officially in September, acquiring drones is among the first orders of business. There is talk of implementing them officially in West Africa as well.
The technology is relatively cheap, costing in the DRC $15 million this year, a minuscule fraction of the U.N.’s annual peacekeeping budget of nearly $8 billion — a point peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous repeatedly made in pushing for their deployment.
Ladsous came under fire this year after leaked documents from the U.N. mission in Darfur raised a controversy over a lack of U.N. reaction to government attacks on civilians. UAV surveillance likely would have made it more difficult for the mission to plead ignorance of Khartoum’s airstrikes. In this light, human rights groups have not only applauded their use but also urged that the data they collect be shared with investigators.
“When it comes to tracking down armed groups who burn villages, terrorize entire regions and kill civilians, as we see in places like CAR, DRC or Sudan and South Sudan, observation drones can come very handy, and we see no clear reason why the U.N. should not use them,” said Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.
‘When it comes to tracking down armed groups who burn villages, terrorize entire regions and kill civilians … observation drones can come very handy, and we see no clear reason why the UN should not use them.’
Human Rights Watch
But not everyone is welcoming the U.N.’s use of drones. The data the machines can collect is already a point of contention among some member states. On the Security Council, Russia and China have raised privacy concerns, as has Rwanda, over UAVs in the DRC.
Rwanda, in particular, has reason to worry. Lake Kivu, where the drone in May was flying, is on the Rwanda-DRC border. The question will rear its head again in the Central African Republic, which borders South Sudan, Sudan and Chad, which has been accused of fomenting rebellion in the CAR.
Despite UAVs’ capacity to do so, MONUSCO officials insist they are not peering into Rwanda, a source of many of the illicit arms in the DRC. Before the defeat of M23, the Congolese repeatedly accused Rwanda of replenishing the rebel group's ranks and even equipping its fighters with night vision goggles.
“Our policy is clear. We don’t fly them to look into our neighbors’ countries. We strictly use them within the DRC,” said Basse. “The cameras will not be directed into Rwanda.”
Bolopion is skeptical about critics’ concerns. “Opponents of U.N. observation drones often fail to make a convincing case against their use or in some cases may have things to hide,” he said.
However, there are no limits on how long the U.N. may retain surveillance data or guidelines preventing it from sharing sensitive information with human rights investigators or with the Security Council to, for example, buttress a case for sanctions. Classified data will be stored in U.N. archives.
The U.N. says centralizing the data at a secure location like the one in Goma that directs the drones makes it less likely member states will be able to feed information through back channels. But the U.N. is porous, if nothing else.
“How they are going to convince people that they can manage this data in a way that is safe and secure — when the CIA sometimes can’t even manage it — is a big unanswered question that they haven’t sufficiently addressed yet,” said Trudy Fraser, a U.N.-based researcher and consultant on peacekeeping.
Much has changed since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when Canadian Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire told a reporter, “We were blind and deaf in the field.” New concepts like the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and clear protection of civilian mandates mean U.N. interventions are more robust than in the past. But they are only as strong as its ability to move troops — a bottleneck that observers say drones can ease but not eliminate.
“The drones issue at present is only a halfway tool,” says David Curran, a lecturer in peacekeeping at Bradford University. “Bringing a UAV to a mission is one thing. Backing it up with effective support and reaction capabilities is another. If U.N. drones are watching massacres, then it is already too late in many ways.”